Magic, Magorium and Missing the Point


Blog By: Ben Boquist

Life’s not fair. The sweet guy doesn’t always get the girl. The most talented person doesn’t always get promoted and good films don’t always get the credit they deserve.

I guess I should start at the beginning. Several years ago I was a fresh-faced film student new to the L.A. scene. I spent a semester interning as a script reader for a production house where I read close to 100 scripts in the course of three months.

Among them was a gem called Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. I wasn’t assigned to read this script, but I found it at the office and was intrigued by the title. I read it in one sitting and loved it!

Fast forward four years.

I was shopping for some cheap stocking stuffers the other day and found the DVD for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium at the bottom of a $5 movie bin. I hadn’t seen it since its release, but have thought about it several times since.

So I bought two copies (one for a gift and one for myself).

Here’s what I love about it. It’s colorful, whimsical and well acted. It has witty characters and dialogue thanks to screenwriter/ director Zach Helm (who, by the way, also wrote the Stranger Than Fiction).

Natalie Portman plays Molly Mahoney, a talented musician who works at a magical toy store while she’s figuring out what to do with her life. The store is owned by Mahoney’s mentor, the eccentric Mr. Magorium (Dustin Hoffman in lisping grandfather mode).

Because the toy store is a magical one, the toys routinely come to life to play with the customers and staff. There’s also a weird, lovable little boy named Eric (Zach Mills) who spends most of his time at the toy store, where he tries and fails to make friends.

The plot turns philosophical when for no apparent reason, Mr. Magorium decides he’s lived long enough. He hires an accountant named Henry (Jason Bateman) to settle his affairs before he dies.  In the scenes that follow, Magorium tries to prepare Mahoney, Henry and Eric for his death.

Gradually the colors get dimmer and dimmer as the store itself mourns the passing of its owner. Finally, in the end, Mahoney assumes her place as the new owner and sets everything right again.

I fell in love with the script (and then the film) because it embraced mystery and magic. Not magic in the fantastical sense, but everyday magic. (Yes, magnets have a scientific explanation, but aren’t they also magic?) And then there’s the wonderful character of Henry, the face of modernity, with his cold, hard analytic understanding of things. Add to that a beautiful commentary about grief and the search for meaning in vocation. I could go on and on, but sadly critics did not agree.

RottenTomatoes gave it a 37% and several film reviews called the story “bland” and “sentimental.” Several articles called the plot slow. Others pointed out that the events surrounding Magorium’s “death” were too vague. It was “too adult” for kids, and “too childish” for adults.

As someone who writes movie reviews, I’m usually sympathetic to writers’ critiques of movies. But as I read reviews for Magorium, I couldn’t help but feel that everybody missed the point, and that it was really too bad.

If you haven’t seen this gem of a film, you should!

And, if you’re a filmmaker with less than favorable reviews, keep your head up! Critics don’t know everything, and somebody, somewhere will “get it”.

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